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Catalyst Cost Estimating Tool Significantly Improves Research Efficiency

April 9, 2019

More than 85% of chemical processes rely on catalysts, but limited information on their cost can lead to roadblocks during early-stage research and development (R&D) and along the path to commercialization. To address this challenge, the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) and Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL) developed a catalyst cost estimation tool that incorporates industry-standard estimation methods into an intuitive, user-friendly suite of tools.

Released to the public free of charge in the fall of 2018, CatCost is a first-of-its-kind tool that enables researchers to generate rigorous cost estimates on the large-scale production of pre-commercial catalysts. The new tool provides cost insights for key decisions throughout the catalyst development process, thus saving researchers time and money.

Three men talking in front of large computer screens.

NREL's Josh Schaidle, Kurt Van Allsburg, and Fred Baddour led the development of CatCost, a free catalyst cost estimating tool that incorporates industry-standard estimation methods into an intuitive, user-friendly tool for researchers of all expertise levels. Photo by Dennis Schroeder, NREL

Guiding Early-Stage R&D Decisions to Overcome Obstacles to Commercialization

A variety of commercial sectors—from petroleum refining and chemical manufacture to energy generation and food production—depend on catalytic processes. For many of these catalytic processes, such as new pathways for the conversion of biomass to biofuels and biochemicals, catalysts can contribute a significant amount to overall product costs.

Even more problematic is the uncertainty that catalysts can cause in the overall fuel or chemical cost. The greater the range of possible costs for the catalyst, the greater the uncertainty in the fuel or chemical cost. This uncertainty is a considerable source of risk for the commercialization of new biofuels and bioproducts. Public-domain cost knowledge is particularly limited for the manufacture of catalytic materials before they reach the market.

“NREL analysis work has shown that in a number of modeled biomass conversion technologies, catalyst cost can constitute up to 10% of the uncertainty in the expected fuel cost,” said NREL scientist Fred Baddour, principal investigator for the CatCost project. “That’s substantial, as the uncertainty surrounding the cost of potential breakthrough catalysts drives uncertainty in the production costs of biofuels developed during these processes.”

A major goal of CatCost is to reduce commercialization risk by providing better catalyst cost information. By delivering meaningful cost comparisons between materials, identifying problem materials or steps, and providing sensitivity and risk analysis, CatCost enables researchers to gain an understanding of the economics of catalyst production and make more informed R&D decisions early in the catalyst design and development process, well before attempts at commercialization. The tool can quickly deliver actionable cost insight so that researchers can focus their efforts on areas with the greatest potential for cost reduction.

“Being able to estimate catalyst costs at the initial planning stages while still figuring out the chemistry and where the material fits into the process is much better than waiting until the end goal is reached,” said Baddour. “The information gained from CatCost can guide scientists toward different synthetic approaches with the possibility of making early corrections.”

Accurately Converting Bench to Industrial Scale

The NREL-led development team set out to answer a seemingly easy question: how much will this catalyst cost? But the answer was far from simple. Translating bench-scale processes and costs to an industrial scale was a complex undertaking.

“We know the materials, chemicals, and process steps for making catalysts in the lab,” said Baddour. “But when it comes to making things in a plant, you can’t use the same glassware, equipment, processes, and reactors. You’re going from milligrams and grams to kilograms and tons, which requires specialized expertise that’s not necessarily available to the laboratory researcher.”

Investigating this translation process to determine costs at large scale sparked the CatCost project.

NREL postdoc Kurt Van Allsburg led the development of the tool under Baddour’s guidance, gathering both new and existing cost estimation methods for large-scale catalyst production and building them into an easy-to-use Excel tool. Baddour and Van Allsburg coordinated the efforts of a team of researchers—including scientists from NREL, PNNL, and industry—to add contract manufacturing, templates for common catalyst types, spent catalyst handling, and a web tool with powerful visualizations.

“The development of CatCost was driven by a desire to better understand more than just the performance of the materials, instead looking at the broader picture of their costs and impacts,” said Van Allsburg. “The tool not only provides quantitative cost information so that researchers can get an estimate for a particular material, but they also obtain insight into the kinds of equipment needed and the ways that overall material costs break down into individual components.”

Functionality Enables Standardization within the Catalysis Community

CatCost provides user-selectable estimation methods, pricing libraries, and ease-of-use features that tailor an estimate to the user’s amount of experience and expertise, thus empowering researchers of all skill levels to make better R&D decisions, especially when quality cost information might not otherwise be available.

In many cases, Baddour believes the CatCost tool can reduce the time for a cost estimate from hours or weeks to just 30 minutes.

“Researchers who understand their process can complete estimates in a short amount of time,” said Baddour. “But CatCost also enables economic estimates for the researcher who may have never considered them before. We believe that the simplified and accurate cost estimations that can be prepared with CatCost will assist in standardizing the discussion of cost in the scientific literature.”

The tool has the potential to be an invaluable resource for homogenizing estimates in the catalysis community. With CatCost, industrial and academic researchers alike can compare the economics of their materials on the same basis, providing a standard metric for comparing catalyst synthesis methods and materials, and improving the research community’s ability to benchmark their R&D outputs.

CatCost is designed especially for advanced synthetic techniques, for which there may not yet be comparable industrial processes. The tool includes process templates that translate lab-scale synthesis steps into the materials and energy balances, unit operations, and resulting capital and operating cost components of a commercial-scale production plant.

“CatCost brings together different cost elements and methods, like raw material pricing, capital and operating costs, and equipment lists,” said Van Allsburg. “But the tool was also created so that the user can understand the estimating process without having to do the complicated work, such as unit conversions. This combination of bringing together some of the best methods in the industry and bundling them in a powerful and flexible yet easy-to-use tool is a big benefit.”

Moving Forward: Expanding Capabilities and Engaging with Users

Even though CatCost has been up and running for a few months, the team has continued to work on improvements that enhance the cost estimation experience. CatCost is frequently updated with usability improvements, material templates, and polished visualizations to improve the overall usability of the tool.

“Throughout the development of CatCost we’ve sought to be responsive to the community, incorporating the features we believe will benefit our users most,” said Baddour. “But there’s always room for improvement so we want to find out how people use the tool and what their experience is like, so we can ensure CatCost continues to reflect the needs of the researchers it serves.”

Learn more about the CatCost tool, developed as a project within the Chemical Catalysis for Bioenergy Consortium.